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Friday, June 25, 2021

Explained: How the ’50+1 rule’ made sure German clubs didn’t join the breakaway league

Why the Super League has triggered a crisis in European football, and why German clubs have refused to join.

Written by Mihir Vasavda , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: April 20, 2021 7:20:13 am
Bayern MunichFor Bayern Munich, to get the proposal past the club members would have been a difficult task. (File photo)

Arsene Wenger saw it coming. “Maybe in 10 years,” he told The Guardian in 2009, “you will have a European league. The way we are going financially is that even the money that will be coming in from the Champions League will not be enough for some clubs.”

What Wenger predicted back then was reality on Sunday after his former club Arsenal became one of the 12 founding members of a Super League, an announcement that has triggered a crisis in European football. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are the other teams.

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German giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are the notable absentees from the list, along with French heavyweights Paris St Germain. According to reports, they were unconvinced by the European Super League (ESL).

“The economic interests of big clubs in England, Spain and Italy cannot destroy the structures that exist in the whole of European football,” German football association’s chief executive Christian Seifert said in a statement. “In particular, it would be irresponsible to irreparably damage the national leagues of European professional football in this way.”

The German model

 The ‘structure’ Seifert mentioned is seen as the key reason why German clubs have stayed away from the ESL. Majority of clubs in Germany, including Bayern and Dortmund, are governed by the 50+1 rule, whereby the club members – the fans – have to have a controlling stake, which means private commercial interests can’t gain control.

In contrast, the majority of teams that have joined hands to form the ESL have private individuals, a lot of them foreigners (as in the case of Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Milan and Chelsea), as owners. Fans in these countries have little say in the clubs’ affairs. In the past, fans in Germany have staunchly opposed any talk of a Super League. So, for Bayern or Dortmund to get the proposal past the club members would have been a difficult task.

These members, the majority, also elect the club presidents. Germany is unique in the way that most club presidents are former players themselves. Their views are different from executives who hold the office primarily for commercial reasons – none of the 12 ESL teams have former players as club presidents.

Financial desperation

 Spanish heavyweights Real Madrid and Barcelona, too, have club members as majority stakeholders. But their reason to join the ESL, according to experts, is their dire financial condition. In January, Diario Sport reported that Real Madrid had a gross debt of €901 million while El Mundo said Barcelona was on the verge of bankruptcy with a total debt of €1,173 million. The financial situation of Italian clubs, too, is not sound.

Real Madrid In January, Diario Sport reported that Real Madrid had a gross debt of €901 million. (AP photo)

While desperation is seen as an excuse for Spanish and Italian teams to join the new league, pundits in England, led by former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville, said the six Premier League clubs were motivated by ‘greed’. “It’s pure greed, they’re impostors… Enough is enough,” Neville told Sky Sports.

In Germany, the 50+1 rule has often been cited as the reason for the clubs not overspending on players and despite arguments in favour of opening up the German football market to outside investors – assuming that the investment will help close the gap between their clubs and the rest of Europe – the move has been resisted. As a result, German clubs are, by and large, well managed financially.

Sporting merit

The Financial Times reported that the founder members are likely to receive ‘100mn-350mn euros each’ as a ‘welcome bonus’, which would ease the burden on some clubs while making a few others richer. “With expected revenues of 4 billion euros for the competition through media and sponsorship sales, clubs would receive a fixed payment of 264 million euros a year,” The Financial Times reported.

This is important because the money would remain a guarantee, unlike the current structure where the Champions League bonanza is lost if the team has a poor season in their domestic league. As things stand, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal – currently fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth respectively in the Premier League – will not qualify for next season’s Champions League.

But as founding teams of the ESL, they will be permanent members. The biggest criticism against the new venture is that it departs from one of the most important ethos of football, which makes it a universal game – sporting merit. It means a team, no matter how small, can earn a right to play in the biggest tournaments on the basis of strong performances.

And with the bonus they get by qualifying for Europe, these ‘small’ sides invest in better players and infrastructure. Legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was quoted as saying: “Both as a player for a provincial team Dunfermline in the 60s and as a manager at Aberdeen winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup, for a small provincial club in Scotland it was like climbing Mount Everest. Everton are spending £500 million to build a new stadium with the ambition to play in the Champions League. Fans all over love the competition as it is.”

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‘Legacy fans’

The ESL clubs, it is reported, are looking at a newer segment of fans. According to the BBC, “some of those involved in ESL call traditional supporters of clubs ‘legacy fans’ while they are focused instead on the ‘fans of the future’ who want superstar names.” The 50+1 rule, which puts the supporters at the heart of decision-making, once again ensured that the interests of the so-called ‘legacy fans’ remain protected.

Dortmund chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke said the members of the European Club Association (ECA) expressed “a clear opinion to reject the foundation of a Super League”. The two German clubs on the ECA board, Bayern and Dortmund, had taken “100 per cent” the same position “in all discussions”, he said.

In their statement, the ESL left the door open for three more clubs to join them. The UEFA, on the other hand, is hoping support from Bayern and Dortmund will help them pass their new Champions League format. Whatever the scenario, the German clubs have emerged as kingmakers in European football’s battle for power.

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